Even while catching the ears of the Beatles, who cited him as their favorite American artist, and pitching his songs to the Monkees, Harry Nilsson remained a mystery man to the fans of these bands and even to record industry insiders. Richie Unterberger details the surprisingly productive yet underappreciated years of a singer-songwriter before his transformation into a hugely successful recording artist (and John Lennon’s BFF).
When Harry Nilsson’s first widely available album was released by RCA in October 1967, it seemed as if a fully realized singer-songwriter talent had burst out of nowhere. It must have appeared that way to the Beatles; John Lennon and Paul McCartney were impressed enough by Pandemonium Shadow Show to cite him as their favorite American artist at a May 1968 New York press conference for Apple Records. Famously, both Lennon and McCartney made early-morning phone calls to tell Nilsson how much they liked his music.
Nilsson covers “You Can’t Do That” by Lennon/McCartney on Pandemonium Shadow Show:
The Beatles didn’t find out about Nilsson through happenstance, getting tipped to him by legendary PR man Derek Taylor, who got Pandemonium Shadow Show into the group’s hands just after it was released. The mystery as to who this Nilsson guy was—not just to the Beatles, but to almost everyone—was ensured by his never having performed live (and, in fact, he seldom would perform even during the course of his lengthy subsequent career). And nowhere on the cover or inner label was his first name printed, the album getting billed (and composer credits given) simply to “Nilsson.”
In fact, however, Harry Nilsson had been toiling in the back rooms of the music industry for five years prior to the release of that album. He’d often jobbed as a songwriter for others, occasionally singing on super-rare discs that were issued under pseudonyms like Johnny Niles and Bo Pete. Very little potential can be spotted on these derivative and dispensable trifles, other than in his vocals, showcasing the range that would (especially in its higher notes) count among his strongest assets. But there’s little to distinguish him from countless other Brill Building-wanna-be-types on songs whose very triviality is embodied by their titles, like “Wig Job” and “Baa Baa Blacksheep.”
Once in a while, Nilsson did co-write superior pop-rock songs, like the Ronettes’ “Paradise” and the Modern Folk Quartet’s “This Could Be the Night,” although to his frustration these were not issued at the time. An actual debut LP, Spotlight on Nilsson, did come out in late 1966 on Tower. But it almost might as well have likewise been unreleased considering how few people heard it at the time. Or, for that matter, since—Discogs lists just one CD reissue of the album, put out last year in Japan by a label I’ve never heard of, which I have yet to see in stores.
That’s a shame, as it shows Nilsson—already 25 at the time it appeared—starting to grow into both a composer and singer of far more distinction than you’d guess possible from his earlier efforts. That’s truer of an even more scarce pre-Pandemonium Shadow Show LP done slightly later, New Nilsson Songs, designed to generate interest in a musician still thought of more as a composer than a recording artist in his own right. Besides featuring early versions of a few Pandemonium Shadow Show songs, it also finds him venturing into far more personal territory, as if he’s finally expressing his own thoughts and feelings, instead of trying to craft a hit record for someone else.
The Tower Era and Spotlight on Nilsson
Tower Records—a subsidiary record label of Capitol, not to be confused with the famous retail chain of the same name—has come to be regarded as a bit of a joke label by connoisseurs. Sure, it was a division of a powerful major; had some hits by the Standells, Freddie & the Dreamers, and Ian Whitcomb; and put out Pink Floyd’s first US releases. The Chocolate Watchband and Davie Allan were other notable artists on its roster, but generally the label seemed to put far less effort and promotion into its product than its parent company did. That was certainly the case with Nilsson, whose Tower catalog would be heard almost exclusively by aficionados years after it was recorded.
Spotlight on Nilsson has something of a tax write-off feel, especially considering eight of the ten tracks were also out on flop singles from 1964-1966. In addition, Harry didn’t even write four of the songs, indicating Tower might have thought of him mostly as a singer when they signed him. His 1964 debut was a cover of the much-traveled “16 Tons,” though the quasi-soul-jazz, organ-heavy arrangement and a confident, winding vocal makes it better than you might expect. Written by one Johnny Cole, its B-side “I’m Gonna Lose My Mind” was a by-numbers tune with an early-‘60s twist rock feel that stood little chance against the British Invasion. Still, Nilsson’s vocal is so much better than the material that you’d have to think something would come of this guy.
Maybe that was Tower’s thinking in sticking with him for some more bombs and letting him write as well as sing his next 45. Too bad, then, that “You Can’t Take Your Love” is a brassy catalog of teen rejection clichés, with a bit of the Latin percussion feel of early-‘60s Drifters hits. Co-written with John Marascalco, “Born in Granada” is a too-transparent emulation of mid-‘60s Marvin Gaye hits like “Can I Get a Witness.” Unwisely, it was back to a Johnny Cole composition for the next try, Nilsson sounding for all the world like a Sonny Bono imitator on “The Path That Leads to Trouble,” billed to the New Salvation Singers featuring Harry Nilsson. At this point, it seemed doubtful he’d develop a strong identity, let alone sell many records.
And yet the other side of “The Path That Leads to Trouble” was Harry Nilsson’s first truly excellent recording, and one that should have grabbed the ear of anyone lucky enough to hear it in late 1965, at least within the music business. Nilsson didn’t rock out very often, but when he did, he could get surprisingly gritty, like he would about five years later on his “Jump into the Fire” hit. Paced by a downright rambunctious tinkling piano—if this wasn’t Nilsson, I’d like to know who—“Good Times” is an infectious, celebratory rocker, Harry gliding into some thrilling high vocal trills near the end of the verses. Lyrically it’s no great shakes, and it’s hard to see where it might have fit in on a 1965 radio playlist.
But certainly it would have justified giving him more opportunities, and he got one more crack with Tower on 1966’s “She’s Yours”/“Growin’ Up.” Written with J.R. Shanklin, “She’s Yours” shows some growth of musical ambition in its shifts between lachrymose slow, orchestrated verses and almost military-tempo exhortations in the chorus, suddenly exploding into a jubilant Phil Spectoresque bridge. “Growin’ Up” is a maudlin ballad, reinforcing the general sense that Nilsson was writing for—indeed, down to—a teenage demographic rather unworthy of the experience he must have accumulated as a guy in his mid-twenties.
Filling out the LP, there’s a cover of faded mild rockabilly singer Marvin Rainwater’s “So You Think You’ve Got Troubles” that, with its exaggerated why-does-everything-happen-to-me vibe, adds to the sense of a highly talented singer spinning his wheels. Nilsson’s own “Do You Believe” recycles the kind of clichéd soul-pop heard on some of the other Tower tracks. Since his singing is excellent, assured, and idiosyncratically his on every track—even such throwaways—industry insiders couldn’t be blamed for thinking that if anything was going to happen with him, it would be as a singer, not a songwriter. Only “Good Times” showed him excelling in both departments.
That would change with his next album—though it wasn’t exactly a Harry Nilsson album, or even something that many people got the chance to hear. He didn’t even appear on all the tracks, a couple of which he wasn’t even involved in as a singer or songwriter.
New Nilsson Songs: By Nilsson
I’ve consulted several sources—including the only thorough Nilsson biography, Alyn Shipton’s Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter—and I’m still not sure whether New Nilsson Songs was ever available in stores. It’s usually referred to as a “promotional record,” though Shipton’s book refers to it as a “limited edition LP.” My guess is that it was only heard within the music industry—by publishers, producers, record labels, etc.—and circulated with the primary purpose of finding other artists to cover Nilsson songs, as well as in hopes it might help get Harry a new recording deal.
Rock history’s full of junctures where artists suddenly seem to find their voice, sometimes between one recording and the next. Usually there’s some work in the interval behind the scenes of which we’re not aware. But in Nilsson’s case, it certainly arrives with a jolt with the first track of New Nilsson Songs. Not only is it autobiographical—it’s almost painstakingly so, even if it wasn’t widely known at the time just how closely it draws from his own life. For “1941” isn’t just titled after his year of birth, but also documents how his father abandoned his family, leaving him and his mother to struggle in the aftermath. It’s effectively contrasted with a sparse, almost Salvation Army-like jaunty arrangement. If it’s not the exact same version that was used on Pandemonium Shadow Show, it’s pretty close.
Nilsson performing “1941” on a BBC-TV “Singer Songwriters” showcase:
But there’s much material on New Nilsson Songs that’s exclusive to the disc. “A Boy from the City” has the same kind of cheap yet haunting, echoing piano heard on some of his Tower sides. Yet both the words and music are far superior to the Tower cuts, Nilsson starting to fuse ingredients of rock with the best of theatrical Tin Pan Alley pop. With its unsentimental West Side Story-like drama, it’s surprising he’d never redo it for his RCA releases, as it’s stronger than many of his compositions that did appear on those, and has more superb upper-register vocals.
“The La La Song” is a little undercooked both lyrically and production-wise, Harry’s vocals backed only by strummed acoustic guitar chords. Still, it’s got fine pop hooks, and the singing’s invested with an earnestness—and earthiness—largely missing in the Tower era. File under another one that got away.
Luckily, “Without Her” wouldn’t get away. With its inventive, unpredictably winding melody and sweetly mature romantic lament, it would be one of the highlights of Pandemonium Shadow Show. Indeed, it was one of the highlights of his whole career, graced by an effective understated string arrangement. The track on New Nilsson Songs seems to be the same version as the one on Pandemonium Shadow Show. But its placement on this earlier promo-or-whatever release made his talents as a singer and recording artist—and not just his songwriting acumen—impossible to overlook.
“The Story of Rock and Roll” has basic demo-like production, dominated by a pounding piano. But it’s one of the better odes to rock from the era, and one that Nilsson should have put on his own albums, though the Turtles would place it on a 1968 single. It uses some of the ‘50s/early-‘60s rock’n’roll trademarks found on his previous solo efforts, but here’s the crucial difference.
On those earlier outings, Nilsson seemed to be aping, and rather unimpressively, tired and outdated early rock’n’roll formulas in the hopes of selling some records. He wasn’t cultivating original spins on those styles, let alone expressing something interesting. He might be paying homage to those styles on “The Story of Rock and Roll,” but he’s doing so with clever wit that mixes irreverence and affection. It’s a big leap forward in both lyricism and sophistication, perhaps similar in some ways to the changes Randy Newman went through at roughly the same time as he made his own transition from pop craftsman to oddball singer-songwriter.
There’s another preview of a Pandemonium Shadow Show song here that, unexpectedly, is not a Nilsson composition. “There Will Never Be” was written by Perry Botkin, Jr. and Gil Garfield, early publishers of Nilsson compositions; Botkin would also work with Harry in subsequent years in various capacities, including as a songwriting collaborator. The inclusion of this number on New Nilsson Songs might have been intended to promote Botkin and Garfield’s work as much as Nilsson’s. Whatever the motives, however, it’s a superb lively Broadway-type tune whose sparse production foregrounds nervous, jagged piano, a surprising shifting melody, and a Nilsson vocal that unveils a knowing irony never employed on his Tower vinyl.
Nilsson had a greater capacity for drawing from non-rock pop than almost any other for-want-of-a-better-category “rock” singer. This is one of the first recordings in which he embraced it, and one of the best. Maybe he didn’t even realize he could tap into that tributary before trying songs like these on for size. As a collector geek bonus, the New Nilsson Songs version is quite different from the orchestrated Pandemonium Shadow Show arrangement. I must say I prefer the far sparer, down’n’dirty one on New Nilsson Songs, and not merely because it’s rarer.
Wisely, New Nilsson Songs also threw on the only Tower track worthy of this company, “Good Times.” Even if these seven songs were never intended to be expanded upon for commercial release, right here you’ve got half of a very good album. But not a whole album, which leads into the weirdest thing about this rarity.
New Nilsson Songs: By Others
None of the other half-dozen songs are sung by Nilsson. In fact, he wasn’t even involved in the writing of a couple of these, one of which had been a hit way back in 1963. That doesn’t mean the other material isn’t worth hearing, but it gives the LP a schizo feel, and not only just in the way it sounds. The Nilsson-sung cuts point firmly to his future. The others seem like relics from his past, though not without their virtues.
To start with the items Nilsson wrote or co-wrote, “Hey Little Girl” (co-penned with Ellis R. Correll) has a dated pre-Beatles teen idol feel with a hint of Herman’s Hermits vaudeville-rock, but is catchy in spite of itself. You could imagine Davy Jones chirping this as filler on an early Monkees LP, and in fact Nilsson did demo this for the Monkees on March 17, 1967 (more on which later). Here it’s sung by Jimmie Cross—the same Jimmie Cross who sang the tasteless death disc novelty “I Want My Baby Back” (a #92 hit in early 1965), later to become a staple of Dr. Demento’s radio show. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Cross also sings Nilsson’s corny if slightly catchy “Countin’,” which sounds like a cross, to make a bad pun, between a soft drink commercial and teen idol ballad.
“Paradise,” at this point languishing as a Ronettes outtake, is sung here by Jean King. It might not be as good as the Ronettes’ version, but is pretty good Phil Spector-styled pop-rock. It’s not even known who sings Nilsson-Botkin’s “Little More Rain,” and sounds like a rather basic demo. But whoever the woman singer is, she gives a pretty strong performance on this acceptable pensive soul-pop ballad, which has more of that charmingly rickety piano heard on many an early Nilsson-related recording. You can almost picture her running through the song in a cubbyhole at a small music publisher’s office, so bare-bones is the production.
There are also a couple Botkin-Garfield compositions in which Nilsson’s involvement seemed Nil. “Don’t Say Goodbye” is also delivered by an unknown female vocalist—maybe even the same one who did “Little More Rain,” and maybe even at the same session, since it has the same arching soul-pop feel, rickety piano, and cubbyhole production. Oddest of all, Robin Ward’s girl group-style “Wonderful Summer,” a Botkin-Garfield collaboration she took to #14 in late 1963, is also aboard in its original hit version. It reinforces the sense that Botkin and Garfield were trying to promote themselves with New Nilsson Songs about as much as they were trying to help Nilsson.
But it was Nilsson, not Botkin or Garfield, who stood out on New Nilsson Songs. You can imagine music insiders skipping over the non-Nilsson-sung cuts to hear the far more contemporary-sounding Nilsson-dominated material again and again. Its juxtaposition with the other tunes isn’t quite as jarring as you might think, and it’s a pleasant enough listen without having to lift the needle over and over. I’d guess, though, that if you can locate a rare New Nilsson Songs original, the bona fide Nilsson tracks might be a lot grayer than the relatively unplayed surroundings, much like the soundtrack filler on the US versions of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! are always a lot blacker than the played-to-death actual Beatles performances.
The Nilsson demos, according to Shipton’s book, did indeed help lead to his deal with RCA after producer Rick Jarrard heard them. New Nilsson Songs is sometimes given a 1967 date when it shows up in discographies, but as Nilsson signed his RCA contract on January 19, 1967, it seems likely the recent material on the LP was cut in late 1966. Whatever the exact chronology, Nilsson was finally on his way as a recording artist, though Pandemonium Shadow Show wouldn’t come out for another nine months.
It’s tempting to attribute the divide between the “serious” and more frivolous, almost hack job pop of New Nilsson Songs to a slapdash assembly incongruously mixing older material with nearly-hot-off-the-presses creations from the “New Nilsson.” But it’s not so simple, as a yet more obscure batch of recordings demonstrates.
The Monkees Demos
A couple months after signing with RCA—and definitely at least a few months after the most recent tracks on New Nilsson Songs—Nilsson demoed quite a few songs for the Monkees at RCA’s Hollywood studio. This March 17, 1967 session of sorts—featuring just Harry and his acoustic guitar strumming or piano—has circulated for years among collectors. Five of the performances (“1941,” “World,” “Signs,” “Cuddly Toy,” and “This Could Be the Night”) appear on the Sessions 1967-1968 CD of the Nilsson box The RCA Albums Collection, though a few other demos from the session remain unreleased.
The unreleased items include one of his newer-sounding New Nilsson Songs compositions, “The Story of Rock and Roll.” But he also played a couple of the numbers that you’d think he might have wanted to consign to the past at this point, “Counting” (two versions, actually) and “Hey Little Girl.” What was he thinking?
First, if there are suspicions Nilsson was slumming by pitching his songs to the Monkees, it has to be remembered that quite a few established and emerging songwriters were vying to get the band to cover their material. The Monkees were selling tons of records in early 1967, and even getting an album cut meant tons of writer royalties. Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Neil Diamond, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart are the most famous composers who landed hits with the band. But Jeff Barry, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and lesser-knowns like Diane Hildebrand, Bill Martin, and Michael Murphey also benefited from getting a piece of the action on LP tracks. In March 1967, Nilsson was still definitely a lesser known.
You can imagine music insiders skipping over the non-Nilsson-sung cuts to hear the far more contemporary-sounding Nilsson-dominated material again and again.
Maybe Nilsson wanted to save his strongest stuff for his own RCA debut, and get the Monkees to do some of his leftovers. Or, at least, get them to do more lightweight material that could be more suited for the band. Besides “Counting” and “Hey Little Girl,” he also revived “Good Times” and “This Could Be the Night” at the demo session. Oddly enough, the one song the Monkees did select from the batch, “Cuddly Toy” (heard on their fourth album, 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.), was also rendered by Nilsson on Pandemonium Shadow Show.
I’d like to report that Nilsson’s own versions of “Hey Little Girl” and “Counting” slay the rather limp ones by Jimmie Cross on New Nilsson Songs, but that’s not the case. Cross’s covers at least have rudimentary pop production. The Nilsson/Monkees demos, like many demos, have a basic dry sound—just one man and his very basic acoustic guitar, or piano—that can be monotonous in one go. Even “Good Times” isn’t as full or forceful as it was on his Tower single. It’s too bad he never got a chance to cut a full pull-out-the-stops production of “This Could Be the Night,” but no one was thinking these fairly casual performances would be analyzed more than fifty years later.
Still, even in this demo batch, there’s a disconnect between the more frivolous ditties and the more thoughtful statements. It’s hard to see how the Monkees could have done justice to “1941,” or for that matter why Nilsson was willing to risk having such a personal statement issued by another artist before his own version came out.
It’s also a little hard to figure why he passed over a few of the stronger originals demoed here in favor of the covers of “She’s Leaving Home” and “River Deep, Mountain High” heard on Pandemonium Shadow Show. “World” in particular is an affecting expression of pessimism at the state of modern affairs; “Signs” is a fairly strong piece in the same vein, leavened by some optimism and empathy with a sign-carrier. (Be aware, incidentally, that another track from the session, “Superman,” is not really a “song,” but a ten-second piano boogie with a single lyric (“he can leap tall buildings in a single bound”) before it’s abandoned, if there were even more words in the first place.)
The Transformation of Nilsson
The perception of Nilsson as a serious recording artist—by the industry and, maybe, even by himself—would soon undergo a sea change with the emergence of the singer-songwriter movement. Even in 1967 and 1968, many talented composers like Nilsson were still thought of primarily as suppliers of material for other acts to transform into big hits. Carole King, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, even Bob Dylan before 1965—in all of their cases, most people first heard their work through cover versions. Laura Nyro never did score a hit record, though her own renditions of songs made into hits by Three Dog Night and the Fifth Dimension were the best ones. Before getting a record deal (and, soon, a hit with “Society’s Child”), Elektra Records wanted to sign Janis Ian as a writer, not a singer; the company did sign a teenaged Jackson Browne as a writer, not a recording artist.
Nilsson himself had his first major success when Three Dog Night took “One” into the Top Five in 1969 (and first minor successes when “Cuddly Toy” was done by the Monkees and “Ten Little Indians” placed on a 1967 Yardbirds single, though the latter song was terribly unsuited for that great British band). In an ironic twist, Harry was also responsible for giving the great but troubled singer-songwriter Fred Neil his greatest success when Nilsson’s superb interpretation of “Everybody’s Talking” was a big hit later that year.
But by the end of the 1960s, a growing number of listeners wanted to hear the songwriters themselves sing their material, especially as rock lyrics grew more sophisticated; the full-length LP format surpassed the 45 single as the main vehicle for commercial releases; FM radio afforded exposure for album cuts by singer-songwriters who didn’t have AM hits; and expression so authentic it could only be delivered by the actual songwriter came to be valued as much or more than commercial pop gloss. That also meant singers with rough-hewn, unconventional voices like Cohen and Newman (and, earlier, Dylan) that might have been dismissed as impossibly uncommercial now had a chance, even if it would take quite a few years for Newman’s records to sell well.
That wasn’t something that the angelic-voiced Nilsson had to worry about, and in line with his generally enigmatic career, he’d act as a vehicle for Newman songs with 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman album. He’d also have his two biggest hits, by far, singing material penned by others (“Everybody’s Talking” and Badfinger’s “Without You”).
But shortly into his career as an album artist, he’d never again be considered primarily as a behind-the-scenes writer of fodder for others, even though he seldom performed in front of an audience. As unlike as their voices were, in some ways his trajectory was most similar to Newman’s. Newman wrote a huge number of pop-rock songs for others throughout the 1960s, and had a lot more success with them than Nilsson did as a writer-for-others (though mostly in the UK, where Alan Price, Gene Pitney, and Cilla Black all had big hits with Newman compositions).
Even in 1967 and 1968, many talented composers like Nilsson were still thought of primarily as suppliers of material for other acts to transform into big hits. Carole King, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, even Bob Dylan before 1965—in all of their cases, most people first heard their work through cover versions.
When Newman started writing more eccentric and literate material, however, he was the only performer who could really do it justice. It took a while for the music business to be convinced the public would buy it, as seen in the infamous ad where Reprise Records literally tried to give away his first LP. RCA didn’t resort to such shenanigans with Nilsson, but his publishing might have been viewed as a more valuable asset than his recordings, at least until Nilsson Schmilsson hit #3 on the album charts in 1972, about five years after he signed.
His pre-RCA recordings might be unnervingly uneven, and at times unnervingly lightweight pop, to those accustomed to the likes of Nilsson Schmilsson. But as New Nilsson Songs seems to capture almost the precise moment of his transformation—and has still been heard by relatively few people—it deserves a proper reissue. Even the songs on that LP sung by others have their place as farewells of sorts to his more formulaic beginnings, though Robin Ward’s “Wonderful Summer” wouldn’t have to be included, as it has no real Nilsson connection and is easily available elsewhere.
Maybe the Monkees demos could be added as bonus tracks. It could also be teamed with Spotlight on Nilsson, though when I asked a few labels about the possibility of finally getting that on CD a few years ago, one reacted as though it wanted to run away from the prospect as fast as possible. Is there some strange legal roadblock to his Tower sides, and perhaps New Nilsson Songs as well? If so, it would be a shame for those significant recordings to remain almost written out of history for those many general fans not able to access the music, or not even aware of its existence.