Subscribe

(Credit: John Lennon / Spotify)

'Pussy Cats': Harry Nilsson and John Lennon's ode to excess

Today marks the anniversary of the release of one of music’s most peculiar oddity’s, Harry Nilsson and John Lennon‘s 1974 album Pussy Cats. Released through RCA, the album was comprised of half Nilsson originals and half covers. It was produced by ex-Beatles frontman John Lennon, with the added participation of former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.

Across its 37 minutes playing time, the album is a curious offering featuring some of the era’s most iconic figures. A hazy, cocaine and marijuana fuelled romp, characterised as a real team effort, it features cues from Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis and the Who’s resident lunatic, Keith Moon. In fact, the latter features on three of the album’s tracks, and his most bizarre appearance comes playing the Chinese wood block’s on track four, ‘All My Life’.

The album is so of its time that it was inspired by the excesses of its three leading men. In fact, the title derives from the bad press Nilsson, Lennon and Starr were getting at the time for their raucous behaviour whilst out and about under the influence in Los Angeles. Famously, Nilsson and Lennon were removed from the Troubadour rock club in West Hollywood in March 1974 – the month they started recording the album – for heckling the folk duo the Smothers Brothers at a show. Reportedly, Lennon said: “I got drunk and shouted”. There even abounds a rumour that Lennon punched a waitress at the Troubadour whilst being ejected, but we’ll let you decide on the validity of that for yourself. 

For Lennon, that period has become so notorious that it is retrospectively afforded the title of the ‘Lost Weekend’. The weekend was actually a year and a half, 18 months between 1973 and 1975, where Lennon and wife Yoko Ono abruptly separated as the former Beatle disappeared into an all-encompassing cloud of drink and drugs.

This period was so marked by hedonism that Nilsson and Lennon even included an inside joke on the bizarre album cover pointing to their drug use. On the cover, “D” and “S” are on either side of the rug under the table, a hilarious rebus spelling out “drugs under the table”.

Even if you weren’t aware of the social aspect of the album, upon first listen to the opening track ‘Many Rivers to Cross’, the hallucinogenic cover of Jimmy Cliff’s 1969 classic, it is fairly evident that the album was in part recorded in Los Angeles. A sunny, melodic jaunt, Pussy Cats is a strange entity as it sounds exactly as you’d expect ’70s L.A. to feel.

There is also a self-awareness inherent to the album as if Nilsson and Lennon had realised that the promise of the ’60s had dissipated, smothered under a wave of excess and drug abuse. The lyric “sitting in limbo alone, alone for the lifetime” seems as much a reference to this as it does the split between Lennon and Ono.

Lennon had split from Ono during the recording of this album. (Credit: Press)

The duo would eventually end up finishing the album at The Record Plant in New York, owing to the fact that Lennon had better control of the sessions on the East Coast. It was an event like the following that informed his decision. After the first night of recording in L.A., on March 28th, Nilsson, Lennon and the rest were treated to an unexpected visit from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. A night of debauchery ensued, and the result was the only recorded instance of Lennon and McCartney recording together after the split of the Beatles in 1970. For those who aren’t aware of it, the material is terrible. Explicitly referring to the drugs they consumed that evening, the bootleg is aptly entitled, A Toot and a Snore in ’74. Sorry to get your hopes up.

Another reason the album is memorable is because of the juncture it presents Nilsson at. The fame of his 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson had finally started to fade away, and the pioneering tenor was struggling with the effects of his hard-partying lifestyle. Things were to get worse for Nilsson, as during one of these hectic late nights, during a jam session, he ruptured one of his vocal cords and spat blood onto the mic. He hid the injury from Lennon, fearing that he would cease production. To pile the pressure on Nilsson even more, RCA was planning on cancelling Nilsson’s contract due to the commercial failure of his previous two releases.

He decided to push on through the sessions, regardless of his injury, and before too long, Lennon and Nilsson were in New York finishing the album. Allegedly, this caused his voice to damage even more, and the effects of it are debated to this day; even Micky Dolenz of the Monkees claimed Nilsson never recovered from the injury. You can actually detect his vocal strain on ‘Loop de Loop’ and ‘Old Forgotten Soldier’.

Regardless of the stress on Nilsson, the album has many memorable moments, one of which is the totally batshit cover of ‘Rock Around the Clock’. It even features Starr, Moon and Keltner all playing the drums on three separate kits. Track two is also a high-point, a swaggering take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’; this rumbling cover you could imagine being a Blues Brothers tune, horns and all.  

‘All My Life’ is also an interesting moment. Funky with some slightly sinister-sounding strings, the line “I have to change my way” seems as if Nilsson was acutely aware of his health issues stemming from his behaviour. Furthermore, he laments the “bad times” spent “Shooting ’em up / Drinking ’em up, taking them pills / Fooling around”. Ultimately, the track is a strange juxtaposition. Compositionally, it sounds like a Terry Gilliam film looks. 

Pussy Cats is an interesting experience, to say the least. Featuring some of the era’s most defining characters, it is a peculiar feature in Nilsson and Lennon’s back catalogue’s. Equally as strange as Paul McCartney’s earliest solo works, you get the feeling that the excesses consumed by the period’s premier musicians were starting to take their toll by 1974. Regardless, there are highlights that make it definitely worth revisiting, particularly on its birthday.

Comments