For our latest Primer Playlist, we dive into the life and work of the understated, underrated pop-rock maverick
There are some endorsements an artist could only dream of. When John Lennon was asked who his favourite American artist was in a 1968 interview, he proclaimed that “Nilsson is my favourite group,” in his distinctive Liverpudlian drawl. This seismic pronouncement landed around the same time the Beatle picked up the phone to inform Harry Nilsson, then a relatively unknown 27-year-old singer-songwriter, that he’d spent 36 hours listening to his second record, Pandemonium Shadow Song.
It’s fascinating, but unsurprising, that one half of the world’s most famous songwriting duo was so infatuated with Harry Nilsson. Particularly when, on the aforementioned Pandemonium Shadow Song, a cover of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and the first mash-up song, ‘You Can’t Do That’, a track that feverishly references over 20 songs by the Fab Four exist in the same tracklist. There are numerous occasions when listening to Nilsson’s work where you can detect the influence The Beatles had on his musicality, such was his ear for hearing a pop hook or implementing a style of guitar picking and making it his own.
The mutual fandom between Nilsson and The Beatles quickly blossomed into a lasting friendship, one that would generate numerous stories of drunken nights in Hollywood with Ringo in tow, a collaboration which saw Lennon in the procedure’s chair for Nilsson’s tenth studio record Pussy Cats (1974), and later inspire Nilsson to devote his time to campaign for gun control in America following John Lennon’s murder in 1980. Why is it, then, that Harry Nilsson’s expansive oeuvre is often overlooked despite such close association with rock royalty?
Let’s go back to the beginning to get a sense of one of the most influential figures in music, whose trajectory failed to reach similar heights of those who shouted his name. Born Harry Edward Nilsson III in June 1941 in Brooklyn, his upbringing was less than ordinary or easy. His father left the family home when Nilsson was a young boy; an absence which would inform his songwriting, particularly in the early part of his career. He moved to Los Angeles as a teen, taking up a job as a computer programmer in a bank whilst moonlighting as a demo singer in 1962. Building confidence as a singer and cultivating an interest in harmonies and composition, he began having mild success as a songwriter for other artists, notably The Monkees. His debut, Spotlight On Nilsson (1966) was in line with the soundscapes of the time, echoing Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound-style production with lyrical sensibilities typical of those emerging from the Brill Building.
As his output became more prolific (in a ten-year period he released 14 records) and his style reflected his inherent talent, audiences got to know more about Harry Nilsson. With great artists the audience can gauge their biography through their lyrics alone. You needn’t stray further than Pandemonium Shadow Song’s second track, ‘1941’ to get an insight into his psyche. Its autobiographical opening verse is devastatingly composed: “Well in 1941 a happy father had a son / And by 1944 the father walked right out the door / And in ’45 the mom and son were still alive / But who could tell in ’46 if the two were to survive?” Elsewhere, Aerial Ballet (named for his paternal grandparents, who were Swedish circus performers) contains ‘Daddy’s Song’, a continuation of ‘1941’, and a song titled ‘Don’t Leave Me.’ And, while ‘Without You’ was initially inspired by romantic heartbreak, with Nilsson at the centre of the story, the song’s narrative is heightened with the knowledge of his fathers departure. The looming presence of abandonment across his work is felt all the more with Nilsson’s incomparable vocals, which simultaneously emit such strength and vulnerability in his delivery.
Harry Nilsson’s vocals are just one aspect to his artistry that set him apart from his contemporaries. In the same way that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an exceptional character actor, the same could be said about Nilsson across his music. While it’s established that he was extremely generous in sharing his hardships, Nilsson was also as capable of slipping into a role if the song necessitated it. Look no further than ‘Coconut’, best known for its use on a Diet Coke and Lime ad, to hear the singer slip between three characters (narrator, a woman and a doctor) for maximum entertainment. It’s remarkable how, often within one record, Nilsson can have his audience laugh whole-heartedly as easily as he can bring you to tears.
Chances are, if you asked someone to name a Harry Nilsson song, their go-to titles will be either ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ or ‘Without You.’ Two of his most famous recordings, yes – but they’re covers. Exploring other people’s work is a common thread in his output. Untethered by ego, Nilsson regularly submerged himself in other musician’s songs, shifting the spotlight to their talent. A perfect example of this is Nilsson Sings Newman (1969), an album dedicated to Nilsson performing songs by Randy Newman. While that record didn’t gain the notoriety as the aforementioned ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ and ‘Without You’, both monumental productions under his tutelage. There’s so much more to Nilsson’s music than those hits. Arguably, his self-penned compositions are the true masterpieces in his career.
Take ‘One’, which ironically became better known by Three Dog Night’s rendition, or ‘The Moonbeam Song’ from his most commercially successful LP, 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson (which inspired Wilco’s Schmilco title). These are but two examples of Nilsson demonstrating his tender and vulnerable tendencies. Elsewhere, you have the benevolently-textured ‘Me And My Arrow’ from The Point!, the wonderful accompanying soundtrack to the animated film written by Nilsson in 1970 (after he became a first-time father) which told the story of a unique boy named Oblio who’s banished from his hometown for being different, and infectious melodies such as ‘Pretty Soon There’ll Be Nothing Left for Everybody’ served later in his discography. Lyrically, Nilsson was open about the struggles in his personal life but he countered those hard memories with uplifting hilarity, as was the case on ‘Coconut’ or ‘The Flying Saucer Song’ from Sandman.
As his career progressed, so did his disdain for commodification. Commercial success didn’t motivate Nilsson. He actively avoided touring and during the sessions for Pussy Cats in 1974 he purposefully ruptured his vocal cords. Whilst going through a divorce, and after the success of Nilsson Schmillson (which received attention at the 1973 Grammys), he penned ‘You’re Breakin’ My Heart’ as a single. It was a song that would fail to get radio-play due to its crass lyrics: “You’re breakin’ my heart / You’re tearin’ it apart / So fuck you”. It wasn’t necessarily the press or executives that were silencing Harry Nilsson. He was doing that himself.
After a number of releases going under the radar, he finally left his label RCA and retreated almost entirely. Throughout the 1980s, his work predominantly lay in writing musicals and soundtrack work. With the latter, he wrote all of the music featured in Robert Altman’s Popeye. By 1985, he founded Hawkeye, a production company which facilitated various film and tv projects. His final performance took place when he joined Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band in Las Vegas in 1992. On the night, Todd Rundgren joined Nilsson onstage to assist him by taking care of the high notes of ‘Without You’, which he could no longer reach.
There’s something so endearing and enduring about Harry Nilsson as both a person and performer. An influential figure and individual with flaws and struggles, but also someone who clearly lived life to its fullest. All aspects of his multi-faceted personality are evident across his terrifically varied and personable music.