In 1968, when the Beatles were asked who they were listening to, they responded “Nilsson!”. And America said, “Who?”.
America would eventually catch up to the Beatles. First it was “Everybody’s Talkin’”, which won Harry Nilsson a Grammy. Then some people may have caught “The Point” - an hour long cartoon he essentially conceived and wrote the songs for. But it was Nilsson Schmilsson, which had the huge hit “Without You”, that really put him on the map.
He went on to make many more records - some very good, some not so much - while out carousing with John Lesson and many, many others.
And then a few years ago, he passed away a few years ago, and was genuinely mourned by his fellow carousers.
For a fuller picture, you might want to check out the documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?” Definitely worthwhile.
But what were the Beatles so excited about? Mainly his first couple of albums.
Well, if it’s good enough for the Beatles it’s good enough for me.
These two CDs represent Harry’s first two real albums recorded during 1967 and 1968. The first disc contains those two albums. The second disc is comprised of his attempt to make a single record out of those two records, and partly failing, but with some spectacular results, plus some bonus cuts. Got that?
Nilsson is an extremely talented singer and songwriter who sometimes dabbles in genres I’m not all that crazy about. Which results is records that are very good but that could have been (my definition of) great.
First, there was Pandemonium Shadow Show, which looks like this:
This is clever, intricate pop music. “1941”, written by Harry, is brilliant, beautiful and heartbreaking. The rest of the record is very entertaining all the way through, so it takes a while to realize that while the covers are good but unnecessary. “She’s Leaving Home” is perfect but wouldn’t replace the Beatles’ version. Same for “River Deep, Mountain High”.
Was this just the record company’s way of marketing him? Maybe they thought including those titles would draw some people in. Kind of like what they did with a lot of singers from the pre rock era. And they were striving to showcase a singer at least as much as they were a songwriter.
And Harry could do both in spades. He could write and sing Sinatra type ballads, music hall ditties, cabaret ballads. All very skillfully done, but not my cup of tea.
It’s hard to find fault with this record, and it’s certainly pleasant enough as it goes by, but I want more Harry! B+
So then came Aerial Ballet:
And we get him! Almost all Harry compositions. Some, like “Daddy’s Song” and “Good Old Desk”, that begin the record are almost as great as “1941”. And the others that end it, like “I Said Goodbye to Me” (which I thought was about a breakup, but may be about suicide) is. It’s also got “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Harry’s version of “One” (the big hit for Three Dog Night), and “Bath”, which are fantastic.
An almost classic. A-
A couple of years later, after he wins a grammy for “Everybody’s Talkin”, he goes back into the studio and tries to combine these two records into one, which resulted in:
Aerial Pandemonium Ballet:
And he almost gets it right.
The results - the best of both records and all Harry with the exception of Everybody’s Talkin could have been a truly great album,
But again, because he’s as much a singer as he is a songwriter, he includes “River Deep, Mountain High” when he could have included a couple of other of his own songs.
I would have done a better job compiling it, and it would have gotten an A or even an A+.
But Harry only gets a A-.
But unlike the John Cale set I got last year - another 2 CD set comprised of three albums - I could easily let this one play all the way through, repetitions and all, without stopping. It’s that good. My caveats are more on principle than on sound.
And the bonus cuts are excellent.
So, overall this set gets a strong A-
But that’s Harry for you. He was nothing if not a bit frustrating.
Whimsy, melody and not a small bit of pain. a very impressive set of music, and it serves to remind us that Harry was doing great work long before Nilsson Schmilsson.
Right, yet again, Beatles!