In 1966, Harry Nilsson seemed ready to break out to become a huge star. His songs had already featured in the charts – he had penned The Monkees’ Cuddy Toy in 1967 and The Beatles deliberately and repeatedly namechecked him as their favourite American artist. And yet, by the time of his tragically early death in 1994, he had largely been forgotten by the wider public, and if he is remembered at all, it is as the singer of two enormous hits that he himself didn’t write: Without You, and Everybody’s Talkin’.
In the intervening years, he partied with John Lennon, made occasional eccentric TV appearances, dabbled in children’s film making and garnered a small cult following, but in terms of commercial impact he barely registered – despite releasing 16 albums. While other songwriters of the era such as Elton John and Gilbert O’Sullivan made their peace with fame, Nilsson seemed forever reluctant to make the most of his talents, largely forsaking live performance, and making abstruse choices whenever it seemed he was ready to break through to the big time.
But you’re a fan of songwriters, Nilsson’s uneven back catalogue is packed with sparkling gems that hint at a quiet genius for melody, feature intricate-plotted lyrics, and above all showcase a voice that must rank among the best of all white singers.
Potted biographies are ten a penny though, and if you want to know more about the man you can Google him just as readily as I can. We’re here to look at 5 of his songs and to dig into what made Nilsson such a fascinating and compelling songwriter.
After the two cover versions he is most associated with, this is Nilsson’s ‘other’ big song (along with the extended joke that is ‘Coconut‘, which needn’t detain us here). Taken to chart success by Three Dog Night (their version is, frankly, excruciating in comparison), Nilsson’s original is by turns gentle, haunting, evocative, and uniquely powerful in its expression of solitude. I think by this point, more people are thankfully familiar with this version than the many awful cover versions.
Throughout his career, Nilsson seemed to cleave to a principle of getting in, saying what he wanted to say, and getting out again, leaving as little fat on the bones as possible. Very few of his songs pass the four minute mark, and the bulk of his best work is over well before 3 minutes are through. One‘s plaintive melody is established inside the first 15 seconds, and were it not for the extended extemporised vocal section that comprises the outro the whole thing is essentially over inside a minute and a half.
To put that in perspective, Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do hangs around for 4 minutes and 15 seconds, much of which is metronomic repetition of a melody so pedestrian that she pre-credited Right Said Fred, just in case.
Lyrically, the conceit is so simple and brilliant that bands as diverse as U2 and Metallica have tried to re-use the concept, without ever even getting close to the magic that Nilsson was able to wring from just 5 words: “one is the loneliest number.”
Like a lot of his work, there is also a deeper quality to One: “Two can be as bad as one” is a bleak sentiment when examined. Being alone is something to which we can all relate to, but imagine being with someone and still feeling alone. Most of pop’s lexical interest in love as a subject goes so far as to concern itself with the search for that special someone, or (if sad) the loss of the same.
Nilsson’s eye for real emotional depth was never deeper than in that one, seemingly casual line. The discipline of being able to say that without extending it to 4 verses of increasing histrionics is one of the secrets to Nilsson’s work.
Think About Your Troubles
A song I am more or less obsessed with is built around a trick common to pianists of alternating between suspended and major versions of the same chord. (Nilsson’s own Moonbeam Song is a close cousin, and another good example would be Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk by Rufus Wainwright). Throughout, it deploys a tricksy shifting of chords that make for a series of what sound like escalating crescendos – aided and abetted in this effect by a stellar vocal peformance, full of half chewed-off words and passionate glissandos. The chords are, roughly speaking: B – A – Fm – E – A – D if you’re making notes. All those notes share common tonics along the way, but together in sequence make for a deceptive major/minor feel (D being the minor third of the home key of B, for example).
Taken together, this lends a slightly obsessive feel to the music, reflecting in turn by the endless, circular reasoning of the lyric. It’s comical enough to have warranted the creepy 1970s children’s cartoon in the video above, but like much of Nilsson’s lyrics the humour carries with it a lesson: in this case how little your own tears mean in the context of the wider world outside your own kitchen.
Sit beside the breakfast table
Think about your troubles
Pour yourself a cup of tea
Then think about the bubblesYou can take your teardrops
And drop them in a teacup
Take them down to the riverside
And throw them over the sideTo be swept up by a current
Then taken to the ocean
To be eaten by some fishes
Who were eaten by some fishesAnd swallowed by a whale
Who grew so old
He decomposed, oohHe died and left his body
To the bottom of the ocean
Now everybody knows
That when a body decomposes
The basic elements
Are given back to the oceanAnd the sea does what it oughtaAnd soon there’s salty water (not too good for drinking)‘Cause it tastes just like a teardrop (so they run it through a filter)And it comes out from a faucet (and it pours into a teapot)Which is just about to bubbleNow – think about your troubles
The proper recorded version of this is replete with a horn section, organ and various other supporting instrumentation, but this live version in which Nilsson accompanies himself on acoustic guitar alone really brings out the simple beauty of the melody.
Nilsson was actually born in 1941 and abandoned by his father shortly afterwards, and he takes this personal circumstance to fashion a self-knowing lyric about absent fathers. He himself would father 7 children during 3 marriages, so doubtless this song resonated with him on several ways.
This also shows a trick that Nilsson would often deploy. When you break down the song, there is actually no real verse/chorus structure as such. It is more a story set to music. In such songs – a good parallel might be Dylan’s Simple Twist of Fate – the traditional chorus isn’t needed because there is an ongoing story, which would be broken up by returning to a repetitive melodic phrase just for the sake of convention.
Simple, poignant and beautifully executed, 1941 is an exemplary slice of Nilsson.
Space was a big theme of the late 60s and early 70s, and this 1972 song is almost exactly contemporaneous with David Bowie’s Starman. In fact, if you listen to the orchestration over the fade out, it sounds so similar that it makes me wonder if Nilsson’s producer had heard an advance copy of Starman and taken direct inspiration from its famous outro. I suppose it’s also worth noting that this was the year of Elton John’s Rocket Man. Perhaps there was something in the artistic water that could sense the end of an era (the last moon landing was in December of that same year). Indeed, the lyric “now that I am a spaceman, nobody cares about me” hints at this passing-of-an-age moment in popular culture and the shift from the optimism of the 60s to the darker, more troubled 70s.
More raucous than the other recordings I’ve chosen, this showcases the more commercial, outward-looking side of Nilsson’s work – and in fact this was a relative chart success for the singer. Much of the song’s appeal comes from the fabulous string arrangement, but Nilsson’s melodic instincts and the timeliness of the lyric is what makes this such an indelible song.
This song is actually fairly typical of a strain of American songwriting that flourished around this time (think: Randy Newman, or throwback films of the era such as Bonnie and Clyde, or The Sting). There is something of the down at heel ragtime era in the melody and piano work. The lyric too – with its sense of world weariness with modern life, and a hankering after simpler times – is tinged with a sepia nostalgia.
What really sets this song apart – and the main reason I chose it for this here blod – is the sheer beauty of the vocal. I mentioned earlier that Nilsson could fairly be classed among the greatest of vocalists, and his control and emotive phrasing here is simply spellbinding. Great instrumentation or performance can often elevate the simplest of songs into something greater than the sum of its parts (would Heard it Through the Grapevine have been such an all-time classic had it not been for Marvin Gaye’s vocals?) and it is never more true than here.
So that’s it. A brief introduction to the music of Harry Nilsson. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, his back catalogue can be a bit bewildering and very uneven – particularly as the 1970s wore on. For that reason, one of the more comprehensive ‘Greatest Hits’ style collections is the best entry point – and most of his complete albums are available on YouTube if you want to dig deeper.