When you're a kid you get particular joy out of dirrrrrty novelty songs. At an early, impressionable age I was exposed not only to Donovan's "The Intergalactic Laxative," but also to two little tunes by Harry Nilsson: "I'd Rather Be Dead" (sung by a bunch of senior citizens who'd "rather be dead than wet my bed") and the high-powered rocker "You're Breakin' My Heart" ("...so f*ck you.")
There was a certain joy that came from singing nasty songs that were part of my parent's record collection. How could they discipline me when they'd bought those albums themselves? But as I grew older I started listening to the OTHER songs on those Harry Nilsson albums, and I realized that the world didn't view him as the writer of cheap novelties; he was a troubled genius who hit as often as he missed, who swam in garbage and fished up jewels, who went on a mad drinking binge with John Lennon and was ejected from a bar for heckling The Smothers Brothers.
A man after my own heart.
My favourite Harry Nilsson song is "Spaceman." It encompasses every element of the '70s music I grew up with: pretentious orchestra, soaring melodies, thumping drums, and over-the-top production. I distinctly remember hearing the vocal effect during the "round and around" portion and realizing -- for the first time -- that music could contain UNNATURAL sounds. Thus began my love affair with the phaser.
Wow, he could sing. Wow, he could write a song. Here's a downbeat performance of "1941," which ends with all the pathetic oddness you'd expect from the man.
It seems that Nilsson is LEAST known for the songs he performed and wrote himself. His most famous song is probably "Without You," which he didn't write (and which Mariah Carey butchered in a most predictable way), and other bands have gone on to make hits out of his own songs which failed to chart. There aren't a lot of convenient clips of Nilsson's later work available on YouTube, so instead I'll show you the most wonderful rendition of a Nilsson song I can think of: it's Davey Jones performing "Daddy's Song" (from the Monkees movie "Head," which is brilliant and deserves its own post). Ten points and a smooch if you can tell me who he's dancing with.
Yes, it's Toni Basil. THAT Toni Basil.
Anyway, back to Harry Nilsson. The fact is that Nilsson made some crappy albums; he was messed up and unrestrained and his bosses didn't know how to market him. And yet somehow his troughs accentuate his high points; to love Nilsson it helps to know a bit about him, and what he could AND couldn't do.
Albums to buy: The two-disc reissue of his first two albums ("Pandemonium Shadow Show" and "Aerial Ballet") plus the world's first remix album ("Aerial Pandemonium Ballet") is pure, uncut, enthusiastic young spunk. "Nilsson Schmilsson" gives you the slightly drug-addled, crazier Nilsson (and "Coconut"). Albums to avoid: I'm not a fan of "A Little Touch of Schmilsson In The Night," and I've never picked up those albums that have been widely panned because I've never seen them for sale. For fans only: I wish I knew, because whatever it is I'd buy it.