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Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Harry Nilsson

“Everybody’s talking about me, I don’t hear a word they are saying, only echoes in my mind.” — Harry Nilsson

Success had a very different meaning to the American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. He preferred to remain untouched by the glamourous lifestyle that focused more on an artist’s outward appearance rather than their inner capabilities. He 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.

Nilsson didn’t belong to the privileged lot, who could afford to pursue music without repercussions. Being a realist, Nilsson moved out from his birthplace Brooklyn, New York and shifted to Los Angeles in the quest for prosperity. Though weary from the jobs he took to make ends meet, Nilsson refused to let go of his dreams and even made an arrangement where he worked the night shift at a bank and spent the daytime working on his music.

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 majorly known for his vocal overdub experiments, his mighty pen, and his fusions of Caribbean music. His belief in his 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. Let’s revisit some of his defining works that encapsulate the essence of his artistry.

Six definitive songs by Harry Nilsson:

‘You Can’t Do That’ (1967)

Nilsson’s first big break was Pandemonium Shadow Show released by the RCA Victor records that signed Nilsson in 1966. Until then, the singer only had a few projects with John Marascalco and Phil Spector to his name as a songwriter. 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.

Nilsson’s version of the track had a more controlled tempo which made the song more relaxed. But 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.

‘Everybody’s Talking’ (1968)

The successor of the 1967 album was The Aerial Ballet. The album name was a reference to Nilsson’s paternal grandparents who were Swedish circus performers popular for their aerial ballet acts. The album included Nilsson’s cover of Fried Neil’s 1966 song ‘Everybody’s Talking.’

A philosophical song, 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 US top 10 charts for the first time.

‘Me and My Arrow’ (1971)

As mentioned before, the 1970s was 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, it 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.

‘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 Bandfinger number ‘Without You’ and Nilsson’s two original compositions ‘Coconut’ and ‘Jump Into The Fire’.

While the album earned a nomination for Album of the Year in the 1973 Grammy’s, it was ‘Without You’ for which Nilsson received the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance award. All three songs are precious but ‘Jump Into the Fire’ has a bit more spark than the other two.

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 a larger plea to the society at the deeper levels. 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.

‘You’re Breakin’ My Heart’ (1972)

Harnessing the 1971 album’s commercial success, the record company rushed Nilsson to produce another hit while the tide was still high. 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 song succeeded in capturing the public imagination.

‘Many Rivers To Cross’ (1974)

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.