The life of Harry Nilsson is one of rock’s tallest tales.
Melodic savant with the pipes of an angel, in the late ‘60s he became America’s one-man answer to the Beatles, before spiralling out of control and eventually squandering his talent with the help of his similarly self-hating booze buddy, John Lennon. “It’s not a question of how long you’ve lived, but of how,” he once reminisced. “I’d rather be dead, than wet my bed, you know?”. Nilsson’s heart eventually gave out on January 15, 1994.
We’ve collated some of the best online Harry-based enlightenment for you via the 14 videos below. Then be sure to check out Jim Irvin’s appreciation of Nilsson’s music.
Below, MOJO’s Jim Irvin hymns the singer’s singer who was scared of the stage and got lost on record.
Harry Nilsson’s records, especially the early ones, were deceptive; his sweet, mellow voice and musical facility made them feel effortless, as pretty and lightweight as bubbles. But he was sugar-coating complex emotional detail, a sleight of hand also employed by peers Brian Wilson and Randy Newman, whose work his resembles. On 1941, the second song on 1967 RCA debut Pandemonium Shadow Show, he sings of a boy born in 1941 whose father walks out three years later. It was Harry’s own story.
Not that the fans knew, at first. Nilsson was hard to know. We heard his cover of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, from Midnight Cowboy in 1969, maybe saw his animated TV children’s film, The Point, and knew of his friendship with The Beatles. But he never played live and was hardly ever in the media. The music had to promote itself. After Everybody’s Talkin’, he managed only one other UK top 40 hit, Without You, a Number 1 smash in 1971, but another cover; Nilsson’s own compositions seemed too idiosyncratic for chart success, though in the US Three Dog Night topped the list with a rocked-up One, the prettiest and most famous of Harry’s trademark poignant nursery rhymes.
Soon after this peak, Harry, already precariously fond of a drink, began to unravel as his career kept changing tack – a big band album, a troubled rock album, produced by John Lennon, during which he blew out his voice. There was so much variety until Knnillssonn, his final album for RCA, and his favourite, was overlooked while the label dealt with Elvis’s death. By the ’80s he was in Where Are They Now? land.
“He sings of a boy born in 1941 whose father walks out three years later. It was Harry’s own story.”
Nilsson – The RCA Albums Collection (Sony) allows us to revisit practically every note he cut for the label, 14 complete albums – each with extra material – plus three discs of oddities, one-off singles, TV themes, the vocals from the Skiddoo soundtrack, all the bonus tracks from previous reissues and a surprising amount of previously unreleased stuff, including the mono versions of the first two LPs, debuting on CD and unavailable anywhere since 1968.
Nilsson’s outtakes were often as good as others’ prime material; witness the bittersweet Miss Butter’s Lament and The Family, inexplicably left off Aerial Ballet. Here, too, are fascinating demos cut for The Monkees, his rough sketch of Paradise, the dramatic song written for The Ronettes, and some delicious stuff with Dr. John. Lesser known beauties I Will Take You There and All I Think About Is You are indicate superior quality, but consider Jump Into The Fire, Coconut, Think About Your Troubles, One, Without Her, Good Old Desk and you’re in the presence of greatness on this definitive edition of his work.