Harry Nilsson was a mammoth talent. Not only was he one of the most accomplished vocalists around, but he applied himself with a casual nature that let you know he could do it all while standing on his head. Success had a very different meaning to Nilsson. He preferred to remain untouched by the glamourous lifestyle that focused more on an artist’s outward appearance than their inner capabilities.
Instead, Nilsson submerged himself in the overlapping voices throughout his life, the “echoes” in his mind that made more sense to him than the cheering crowd of rock followers.
That’s not to say he didn’t touch fame; Nilsson spent a large part of his career being championed by some of the greatest rock musicians of all time. To this day, his talent is regarded as extraordinary, even if it was largely wasted through his dedication to drinking. Nilsson would eventually be downed by his habits and leave a permanently sad shadow hanging around his legacy. It’s a sentiment that can overshadow his impressive canon of work.
Nilsson was one of the rare musicians who, despite avoiding public concerts and extensive tours, created a niche for himself in the music industry. He is a master craftsman known for his vocal overdub experiments, his mighty pen, and his fusions of Caribbean music, culminating in a unique viewpoint and expert delivery. His belief in his own creative faculty led him to take a few decisions that might be considered erratic by some but left Nilsson unbothered as he cared little for conventional success.
Though most of his masterpieces are concentrated in the 1970s, there are a few gems scattered across his almost 30 years long career. Below, we’re picking out Nilsson’s 10 best songs.
Harry Nilsson’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘You Can’t Do That’
Nilsson’s first big break was Pandemonium Shadow Show, released by the RCA Victor records in 1966. The singer only had a few projects with John Marascalco and Phil Spector to his name as a songwriter before the record. Though the debut album was a commercial flop, it did attract some industry insiders, including The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor.
The album contained a cover of the Lennon penned song ‘You Can’t Do That’, originally released in 1964. Taylor allegedly bought a carton full of Nilsson’s album to share it with others. Naturally, one of the copies reached The Beatles, who were more than impressed by Nilsson’s work. During the 1968 press conference to announce Apple Corps, when asked about their favourite artist/band, both Lennon and McCartney replied “Nilsson” in unison.
What stood out the most was the eighteen other Beatles tune that he referenced uniquely. He quoted snippets of song lyrics along with the multi-layered backing vocals. The song was Nilsson’s first commercial success, and it established him as an artist.
9. ‘Me and My Arrow’
The 1970s were the zenith of Nilsson’s creativity and popularity. The streak of success was opened by his sixth studio album, The Point!, which was followed by an animated film of the same name by Fred Wolf.
One of the greatest concept albums of all time, The Point! was a fable with a protagonist named Oblio. A misfit with a round head, Oblio resided in a village where everything was supposed to be pointed by law. Talking about the inspiration behind the album, Nilsson said, “I was on acid, and I looked at the trees, and I realised that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s no point to it.’ “
Among the fourteen tracks that the album contained, ‘Me and My Arrow’ was the only song that was later released as a single. ‘Arrow’ was Oblio’s dog and the song featured at the moment when Oblio was banished from his village into The Pointless Forest.
8. ‘As Time Goes By’
If there was one way to ascertain whether an artist is truly timeless, then picking up a song from the 1940s must surely be one of them? If so, then Nilsson was most certainly timeless.
The singer provides an elegant take of ‘As Time Goes By’ on A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night from 1973. Grabbing the Great American Songbook and cutting a dozen tracks shows that Nilsson was never afraid to put himself up against the industry’s legends.
He nails it too. Despite Casablanca featuring perhaps the most famous cover of the song, Nilsson’s is poignant, delicate and poetic at every turn.
Clearly emboldened by the success of Nilsson Schmilsson, the singer tried to employ a similar set of ethos for his next record Son of Scmilsson. It didn’t quite achieve the chart success the vocalist had likely hoped for, but it did contain this stunning number that sees Nilsson approach the alienation of space travel with his usual charm.
The track is punctuated by big horn moments and the opening fanfare of the song is pure bliss. It can all be attributed to producer Paul Buckmaster who, when agreeing with Nilsson to add a string section to the song, arrived with everything from medieval instruments to Moxie “the genius of the harmonica in London at the time.”
The song plays with genre and rarely sits still for long enough to be categorised. Instead, it grips you and takes you on a journey with the narrator as he first described his desire to go to space and leave earth behind, only to want to revert his decision as soon as he arrives.
6. ‘You’re Breakin’ My Heart’
Harnessing the 1971 album’s commercial success, the record company rushed Nilsson to produce another hit while the good vibes were still rolling. Maybe the escalating popularity didn’t suit Nilsson, or he was annoyed with the label’s attitude towards the whole situation; whatever the reason was, it made Nilsson defiant.
When the label asked him to stick to the same formula as the previous album, it triggered Nilsson to do something radical. As a result, Nilsson did just the opposite of what he was suggested and made the album Son of Schimilsson as diverse as possible.
‘You’re Breaking My Heart’ alludes to Nilsson’s separation from his then-wife Diane. The highly controversial lyrics, which began with “You’re breakin’ my heart/ You’re tearing it apart, so fuck you”, contained several other unpleasant tirades along with a fair amount of self-blame. Though Perry was quite disappointed by the song and Nilsson’s behaviour, who arrived for the recording sessions highly intoxicated, the track succeeded in capturing the public imagination.
Some songs are just destined to put a smile on your face and Nilsson’s classic ‘Coconut’ is guaranteed to do it every single time. Nilsson Schmilsson provided Nilsson with his most commercially successful album ever and his third single from the record, ‘Coconut’ would also be his third and final top ten hit.
The song arose in curious circumstances. While on vacation in Hawaii, Nilsson wrote the word “coconut” down on a matchbox, thinking one day it may inspire a lyric or two. Returning home to Los Angeles, Nilsson found the matchbox and was struck by inspiration while motoring down the freeway. He completed the song in his car.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the track is that Nilsson, the famed vocalist, puts on an affected voice for the recording. It allows Nilsson to tell the story of a girl with stomach issues accurately. Richard Perry, the producer on the album, explained: “He played it for the first time on guitar, and he sang it straight through with no changes at all. I thought to myself, ‘This song has the potential to be like a little animated cartoon.’ There are at least three different characters. So I said, ‘Why don’t you try using different voices. He responded to that immediately and gave this marvellous theatrical performance that has made the song a classic.”
4. ‘Jump into the Fire’
Released at the end of 1971 was Nilsson’s most successful album Nilsson Schmilsson. It produced three of his most well-known songs — the cover of the Badfinger number ‘Without You’ and Nilsson’s two original compositions ‘Coconut’ and ‘Jump Into The Fire’.
All three songs are precious but ‘Jump Into the Fire’ has a bit more sprightly spark. The song saw a departure from Nilsson’s earlier works as it was arranged in a hard rock style. The songs work at different levels and can both be viewed as a plea by lovers on the surface or, if you scratch away at the surface and search for deeper meaning, a larger plea to society.
The man who was equally responsible for the success of the song and the album at large was the producer Richard Perry but this is Nilsson nearing his peak.
3. ‘Many Rivers to Cross’
Nilsson developed a strong friendship with Lennon over the years. In 1973, the two met in California, where Lennon moved after his separation from Yoko Ono and rekindled their bond. By that time Nilsson having a great disregard for commercialization started doing a few sporadic works and looked for a way to loosen the RCA Victor’s tight grips.
The two spent some wild time together drinking and partying hard, known by Beatles fans as Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend.’ They were once even thrown out of the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood for engaging in a fight. The late-night celebrations took a toll on Nilsson’s voice, and it got ruptured before recording.
The recording in question is the Pussy Cats LP, which was produced by John Lennon. ‘Many Rivers to Cross’, originally a 1969 Jimmy Cliff song, was one of the album’s best tracks. After two successive flop albums and unimpressive songs, this track re-established Nilsson as an artist.
2. ‘Everybody’s Talking’
Taken from The Aerial Ballet, ‘Everybody’s Talking’ is one of the best songs ever recorded. The album name was a reference to Nilsson’s paternal grandparents, who were Swedish circus performers popular for their aerial ballet acts.
A philosophical song, written by Fred Neil in 1966, it talks about the narrator’s desire to alienate themselves from the crowd and retreat to the ocean. Though Nilsson’s version of the song got a lukewarm response at the initial stage, it climbed the charts a year later after it was used as the theme song of the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy.
Though a deft songwriter, Nilsson won a Grammy on two occasions and, ironically, both the times the nominated tracks were written by someone else. His powerful, emotionally driven delivery made its way to the top of the US charts for the first time.
1. ‘Without You’
Of course, it is. ‘Without You’ isn’t just Nilsson’s greatest song, it may well be one of the decade’s defining anthems, even if it wasn’t his song.
The song was originally written by Badfinger for their 1970 album No Dice but has since gone on to take a life of its own, not only covered by Nilsson but the dynamic diva Mariah Carey. However, despite all the whistle-tone joy of that rendition, nothing can compete with Nilsson’s unique reading of the song, providing a charming sensitivity.
The track would go on to hit number one on both sides of the Atlantic and typify Nilsson as an artist. In fact, one could argue that the song set the blueprint for pop balladry as a whole. Richard Perry said of the song: “It was a different record for its time. It was a big ballad with a heavy backbeat, and although many artists have cut songs like it since, no one was doing it then.”
Nilsson reportedly heard the song being played at a party and mistook it for The Beatles. Once he realised it wasn’t the Fab Four and, therefore, licensing wouldn’t be astronomical, he decided to cover it. Little did he know it would be a rich part of his iconography for decades to come.