Aug 112011

Ever read that book Alive, about the Uruguayans who crashed in the Andes and were so desperate for food that they resorted to cannibalism? I suffer like that once in a while as well. Sometimes I get so hungry for something new to listen to that I’ll plop just about anything on the turntable, literally anything: The Damnation of Adam Blessing, The Beacon Street Union (Boston, by the way, is hands down the all time worst town for rock and roll), The Fort Mudge Memorial Dump, etc. It’s been ages since I’ve unearthed a single gem. There’s damn good reason why all those obscure psych bands never got anywhere. They blow. The world would be much better off if some kind soul would root out all that crap and bury it in a landfill. Too much precious time is wasted trying to find studs of corn in those turds.

About a week or so ago, I decided to call it quits with the whole psych thing to spend time with a bunch of records that did well on the charts but never made it to my turntable. Hence, my visit with Nilsson Schmilsson. Over the years, I’ve had the thing for sale at least 30 times. It always sells. I just assumed it had to be bad based on the fact that Nilsson was responsible for it. Simply put, Nilsson meant “dogshit.” For years, I told myself I wasn’t gonna get screwed by him again. I pissed away good money on his first two records based on the fact that John and Paul high fived the efforts. They were both yawners, filled with lots of neat sounds that didn’t add up to anything.

That said, I loved and still love “One” and “Everybody’s Talkin’.” How can you not think those songs are absolute winners?

Probably because I was too tired to look for anything else as well as the two winners cited above, I decided to remove the Nilsson Schmilsson ultrafloppy RCA Dynaflex disc from its jacket and give it a spin. What follows is my take on the thing:

Side A

1) “Gotta Get Up”: Sounds good, real good production wise. Producer Richard Perry and engineer Robin Geoffery Cable have great ears. That said, it’s your typical Nilsson songwriting effort: nice melody but nowheresville in the lyric department. The band, which includes the extremely mediocre talents of Chris Spedding on guitar and Klaus Voorman on bass, turn in a clean Sam Ash–uninspired performance.

2) “Drving Along”: Sounds good, real good production wise, even better than the first track. Has a very similar production sound to Bowie’s Ken Scott Trident LPs. And whadaya know? I check out the credits. Voorman and Spedding are gone. It turns out that the record was recorded at Trident with Herbie Flowers handling bass chores on this track as well as a few of the others. As far as I’m concerned, Herbie’s an unheralded genius. This guy’s the wiz on Lou Reed‘s Transformer LP as well as the early Bowie releases. Herbie’s contributions along with some shit hot guitar, courtesty of John Uribe, transform a pretty mediocre songwriting effort into something pretty wonderful. Again, it’s Nilsson. Lyrically it’s a whole lot of nothing, but the chemistry of Nilsson’s pipes (the guy can really fucking sing, I’ve gotta give credit where credit is due), Herbie’s fluid bass, and Uribe’s chops serve up a track that would have fit in well on something like the better parts of Ram or Band on the Run, ie, decent McCartney stuff.

3) “Early in the Morning”: Flowers and Uribe are gone. All you get is a soulful solo Nilsson accompanying himself on the organ. It’s most probably something that Perry fought against. It’s bad.

4) “The Moonbeam Song”: Hallelujah! Flowers and Uribe return after smoking a TON of dope. Nilsson gives them another lyrical dud. Nevertheless, along with Perry and Cable, they manage to turn the thing into an atmospheric delight of sorts.

5) “Down”: Flowers and Urbine take off once again to smoke some more dope. Spedding and Voorman return, and, hold onto your hat, bring along Bobby Keys. Yes, the same Bobby Keys who fucked up countless Stones tracks with his legendary party sax. What you get is something ala the reimagining of “Bye Bye Love” featured at the very end of Bob Fosse‘s All That Jazz: unlistenable sludge drenched in echo, which makes Keys’ sax sound like amplified relentless farting filtered through a reverb unit hung in Indian Echo Caverns.

Side B

1) “Without You”: Uribe’s back but not Herbie. The dope is apparently very good. Simply put, a good track is not going to happen without Herbie. I’m odd man out here. A lot of people think this thing’s great. I think it stinks. I’m not a fan of the power ballad. This may indeed be the world’s very first power ballad, but I’ve definitely heard better.

2) “Coconut”: Uribe is gone, but Herbie is back. Once again, Nilsson turns in another piece of garbage and Flowers and Perry turn it into another atmospheric novelty that still manages to amuse an audience.

3) “Let the Good Times Roll”: One should never take an oldie but goodie, especially a New Orleans track, and try to give it a contemporary sound. Flowers and Uribe obviously knew this, which is why they left the session to smoke more pot. Perry knew it as well, but knew he’d be fighting a losing battle against Nilsson whose basic instincts were for the most part terrible. Perry probably threw his hands up at this point and decided to join Flowers and Uribe in the pot smoking activities, which obviously went on for a very long time.

When Nilsson assumes total control, you wind up with this kind of poop:

4) “Jump into the Fire”: Flowers, Uribe, and Perry are back, and they’re very, very, very high. All claim to know the meaning of life while tinkering on their instruments in search of new sounds. In the midst of all this, Nilsson hands them another piece of shit, and they once again manage to turn it into a dynamo of sound, something Roxy Music and Gang of Four might have conjured up if there was a meeting of the minds. Scorsese saw the brilliance of this thing and used it as a soundtrack for his helicopter “chase” scene in Goodfellas, probably one of the best “chase” scenes ever filmed. All Nilsson’s godawful sins are forgiven because of his participation in this track.

5) “I’ll Never Leave You”: Uribe and Perry are spent from “Jump into the Fire.” They head out the door to smoke pot. From out of nowhere arrives George Tipton, who worked on Nisson’s first two LPs, which tells you everything you need to know about why the track is boring as hell. Perry again, has lost his tag-team partners. He throws in the towel to smoke pot with Flowers and Uribe, knowing that he had a hand in “Jump in the Fire” and someone at somepoint will recognize the magic of the track and put it to good use.

The Moderator still gives the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing a big thumbs up because he liked [Mod – make that “loved”] the 15-minute ending. I still don’t think that makes a shred of sense, but I’m going to use that same justification for Nilsson Schmilsson. There’s just enough meat on the bone to satisfy your appetite when you haven’t had a proper meal in ages.

E. Pluribus


  62 Responses to “The Alive Theory of Rock and Roll: Nilsson Schmilsson Considered”

  1. tonyola

    I don’t think Pluribus and I should ever do lunch. It would get ugly. He’s too much of a wannabe curmudgeon.

    First of all, what the hell is a “party sax”? I think the horns add a lot to Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Bobby Keys’ solos in songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Sweet Virginia” are just fine and fit the songs perfectly. Of course, I might be a bit biased being a sax player myself, but to me, since a well-played sax is the closest instrumental equivalent to a human voice, it’s almost as if there’s another vocalist on these records. Plus the sax and trumpets on Exile add density and power to the sound. Ever notice how thin and dissipated the Stones records began to sound after they got rid of the horns and Nicky Hopkins?

    Second of all, I like pretty much all of Nilsson’s output through Nilsson Schmilsson. While he might not be a brilliant lyricist, he’s clever enough to get by, and this is more than compensated by his abilities as a singer and composer. He can be wistful and cute without being saccharine because he throws in a knowing wink. No one else could get away with things like “The Puppy Song”, “Cuddly Toy”, or “Little Cowboy”. He was a real charmer. While I very much admire Randy Newman, I get a lot more sheer pleasure out of listening to Harry.

    As for Nilsson Schmilsson, the only weak track is “Early in the Morning”. The rest is good to great, even the goofball “Coconut”. There is nothing wrong with the horns in “Down” – it’s a big production number after all. Harry’s version of “Without You” completely destroys the Badfinger original. His singing alone on that track is transcendent.

  2. BigSteve

    Nilsson is one of those artists other people tell me I should like, or assume I would like, but I don’t. I have a pretty good idea why though. I tend not to like singers with ‘good’ voices. Another thing is that he seems to be one of those people who are ‘talented’ but have idea what to do with those talents.

    LCD Soundsystem covered Jump Into the Fire during their final concerts, so this album may go up in price due to recently added cool points

  3. Big Steve writes:

    “Another thing is that he seems to be one of those people who are ‘talented’ but have no idea what to do with those talents.”

    Well said, Steve. That’s my biggest problem with him as well.

  4. Hi Tony,

    As far as Bobby K. is concerned, take any of his solos on any record whatsoever, put them all in the same key, and what you’ll hear is a one trick pony. Actually, that’s not even necessary. He can always be counted on for 20-40 seconds of “We’re Having a Party” outro happy sax. And that’s it.

    Years ago, I made the mistake of giving him a big thumbs up for his uncharacteristically great work on “Waiting on a Friend”. I later found out that the work was actually done by Sonny Rollins.

    I’d appreciate it if you could provide an example of his brilliance.

    E. Pluribus

  5. tonyola

    I don’t care what he’s done on other people’s records – we’re talking about his work on the Stones’ albums. I never said he was brilliant, did I? He’s not Charlie Parker – so what? He performed capably for the Stones – he got the job done. Listen to “Sweet Virginia” and his counterpoint to Mick’s vocals – it’s perfect for the feel of the song.

  6. 2000 Man

    You’ve got a Damnation album and you listened to Nilsson instead?

    Your priorities are all fucked up.

  7. I agree with you. He performs capably. In other words, he’s a hack.

    Look, all this is no big deal. If Keys is your second cousin removed twice or something like that, I apologize. I fault the Stones, and Keef in particular, for settling for some bozo with high school chops, especially after picking up Mick Taylor who breathed new life into the band. You need a coke buddy? Fine. Get one that doesn’t fuck up great songs with “this’ll do” sax lines.

  8. Straw man argument. If you want to talk about hacks, how about the Stones’ insistence on using Ian Stewart? He knew some boogie and blues licks on the piano but he absolutely refused to play anything in a minor key. Bill Wyman – he’s a hack too. Should they have fired him for Jaco Pastorius? John Lennon was a hack guitarist – the Beatles should have fired him! There are hacks all over a million records. Do they get the job done? If so, then that’s all that is needed. And Bobby Keys did a perfectly adequate job on Nilsson’s “Down”.

  9. BigSteve

    I think we hashed this out a long time ago, before you got here tonyola, but the RTH consensus is firmly anti-sax. I know, I think it’s weird too.

  10. Last great use of the sax? Careless Whisper by Wham

  11. It’s stupid and limited. Saxophones have been part of rock and roll since the very beginning. Frank Zappa once said that you couldn’t have a rock and roll band in the 1950s without a sax. Since then you didn’t necessarily need a sax in rock, but they shouldn’t be excluded just because of some prejudice.

  12. I’d put in Lenny Kravitz’ “Let Love Rule” – some wailing sax there.

  13. I think andyr came up with a theory on rth v.1 that since guitar distortion techniques were developed and perfected, and since that sound occupied roughly the same sonic real estate as the sax, the sax was demoted to the role of providing quaint nostalgia coloring. If andyr didn’t actually say this, I will take credit for it.

  14. A couple of thoughts. I’ve never heard that album. The cover screams I don’t give a fuck. I had no idea that Goodfellas song was his! Very cool. It fulfills the promise of Lennon’s Meat City. Finally, whose robe smells worse, this one or Brian Wilson’s?

  15. Good question.

    Is that a pipe in his left hand? If so, that’s a plus. At some point or another, you’re new look was going to include a cravat and a cane. What happened?

  16. cliff sovinsanity

    I don’t own any Nilsson. What is my entry point ? Schmilsson or a best-of compilation ? Keep in mind that:
    1. I prefer the original Badfinger version of Without You
    2. I’ve always liked Everybody’s Talking
    3. I like that Jump Into Fire song
    4. I’m happy with my Zevon compilation and his first album.
    5. I’m skittish about the whole singer-songwriter thang.

  17. tonyola

    We can use the same argument to propose that synthesizers can take over the lead guitar role, and that the stringed instrument be relegated to nostalgia coloring.

  18. tonyola

    Probably Brian’s robe. Nilsson didn’t become a fat, drunken layabout and John Lennon’s boozing partner until after this album was released.

  19. ladymisskirroyale

    Mr. Peanut took it on.

  20. Maybe they “can” take over the role of the guitar some day, but it’s been 40 years and synths are still nowhere near a threat to putting guitars out of business. The fuzz box did replace the sax in many garage band arrangements and many other types of rock ‘n roll since then, no?

    This, by the way, is not a shot at saxes. I don’t mind them, but I find their use in rock ‘n roll songs to be a bit limited. Rock ‘n roll needs chords. Beside the bass guitar, isn’t it best when all rock instruments can play a chord, if they so choose?

  21. Ha! In that case I’m confident you’ve solved this uncomfortable question.

  22. tonyola

    Singers can’t do chords either. They haven’t been replaced yet. You need more than one note at a time? Get more singers. Same with saxes.

  23. tonyola

    While I’ve expressed my admiration for Nilsson elsewhere in this post, there’s no question that he fell apart not long after Schmilsson. He drank, partied with Lennon, did some half-assed side project like a 1940s-standards album and Pussy Cats, blew out his voice, and generally wrecked both his artistic and commercial credibility. The decline was both swift and pathetic.

  24. Singers and saxes sever two different purposes. The sax’s role is to play music. If you have the choice to have an instrument that can play leads, or an instrument that can play leads as well as chords, musical Darwinism dictates that the more versatile instrument will survive.

  25. Singers multi-task by singing words. Words plus single notes are basically chords.

  26. tonyola

    Another point to consider is the economics of the situation. It became harder and harder to justify having dedicated sax players or other horn players in a band unless they doubled on something else that was useful. A four or five piece combo is more profitable all around than a six to eight piece group. It’s the same thing that killed off the big bands in the 1940s.

  27. Right, this all ties back to the Economy of Chords, doesn’t it? (I’m entering the realm of joking, at this point, but I am a big believer in chords over single notes. What’s less economical than classical music from the days when people didn’t even play chords?)

  28. pudman13

    I actually kind of like both equally. Is that weird?

  29. pudman13

    A good entry point might be one of the really early albums, ARIAL BALLET maybe.

  30. pudman13

    oops, that’s AERIAL BALLET.

  31. tonyola

    I’d avoid the compilations unless you really want to spring for a comprehensive box set or something like that. The greatest hits albums pretty much concentrate on the sweeter, hit-bound songs and pass over the more interesting obscurities. Also, Nilsson didn’t put out a lot worth hearing after 1972 and “Spaceman” so you don’t need his later stuff.

    Nilsson Schmilsson is a good place to start. So is his 1969 album Harry.

  32. hrrundivbakshi

    Hey, Plurbs — you know why I love my wife? Because she has unerringly great taste in music (among other things). She and I did a few hours of bored shitless TV viewing a while ago, and settled for a rockumentary on Nilsson. We had a bonding moment about half-way through when we both gave each other the simultaneous “GOD, this guy’s music is irritating! Can we turn this off now?” look. All that precious singing — shut up already!

    I’m on your team on this one. I’m waiting for a plane, so don’t have time to fully address the reasons why I don’t have time for Nilsson. I will say that “Me and My Arrow” is another big winner. But that’s damning with faint praise.

  33. BigSteve

    Mod: “Words plus single notes are basically chords.”

    That is one of the silliest things I’ve read here in a while.

  34. Thanks, this silly notion seemed too special to keep to myself.

  35. My wife and I saw that Nilsson doc a few months ago and we really liked it. I don’t really care about his music aside from Everybody’s Talkin and the Goodfellas song but I found the dos to be really compelling.

    I mentioned it in a post and Plurb had a really well rationed counterpoint to my position. Kidding! He said it blew, made some other snide comments and then scurried off.

  36. Hey man,

    I said it was one of the slide projector docs -a low budget deal weak on decent and footage and interviews with key players. That said, it was one of the reasons why I gave Nilsson Schmilsson another spin.

  37. Rather than tear down EPG, cdm, I think we should send him Mad props for stepping forward and actually liking a record this week – simply liking something, not loving it. When is the last time you can remember this guy just liking anything? He’s usually like Mitchum’s knuckles in Night of the Hunter when it comes to his opinions on anything.

  38. 2000 Man

    Probably only to me!

  39. I stand corrected.

  40. Kudos to the new, more temperate, EPG

  41. misterioso

    Geez, sorry to be last man in on this one, but like so many others I find the alleged genius of Nilsson to be something less than billed. I don’t think I knew “Jump into the Fire” was him until Goodfellas came out: fortunately, that still puts me 20 years ahead of the Mod. I rather like the histrionics of “Without You” and barely think of it as being the same song as the one Badfinger wrote and recorded. (I find the idea that it was the first power ballad very intriguing: I have been meaning for a while to broach this subject in a thread. I tend to lean towards Aerosmith as being the true progenitor of that lamentable genre via “Dream On” and “You See Me Crying,” which seems to me to have established the template. But, another day.)

    The sax discussion is a fascinating aside. Me, I am just fine with Bobby Keys, and as tonyola said, no one’s holding him up as Charlie Parker. With apologies to tony, I am not the biggest fan of sax in rock as a whole: I suspect that far more often than not I don’t like it. But, then, at the same time, the sax on “Baker Street” kills me. Raphael Ravenscroft, I salute you!

  42. tonyola

    The sax is like any other instrument – it can be used or misused. The difference is that sax is often “optional” – it can be left out without destroying a song, unlike guitar, bass, or drums. It wouldn’t be hard to find instances of misuse of those instruments either.

    I know that “Baker Street” isn’t a much-loved song here but I like it and most people will say that it’s the sax that provides the hook for the song. It’s also hard to imagine Sade’s “Smooth Operator” without a sax. The Beatles and George Martin generally made good use of saxes – “Good Morning, Good Morning” and “Savoy Truffle” really benefit from the cooking sax sections.

  43. When my parents got their firs cassette deck (a top-loading Panasonic), they got a free cassette called “Sounds of 1970” so I have soft spot in my heart for “Eveyrbody’s Talking” – they never bought any rock albums, so this had to do for many years until I could buy my own albums. Thanks Harry.

  44. tonyola

    It’s kind of a weird irony that despite being a notable songwriter and composer, Nilsson’s two biggest hits (“Everybody’s Talking” and “Without You”) were written by others.

  45. tonyola

    I wouldn’t call “Without You” a power ballad mainly because it relies on string sections for its instrumental power rather than guitars or other rock instruments. It’s more of a torch song. Could “Hey Jude” be the first power ballad?

  46. After consultation with my brother — the proper name of the freebie cassette was “The Stars Are Swinging — 1970” and it also included “I Dig Rock ‘n Roll Music” by Peter, Paul & Mary.

  47. cliff sovinsanity

    Whoa, stop right there. Everybody’s Talkin was written by someone else. Geez, I must fallen asleep during class.

  48. tonyola

    Yep. Here’s the 1966 original by Fred Neil.

  49. Now THAT is a rockin’ comp your parents were swingin’ to!

  50. The funny part about “I Dig Rock ‘n Roll Music” is that it’s actually something of a slam against rock and roll.,_Paul_%26_Mary:I_Dig_Rock_And_Roll_Music

  51. I taped a ton of stuff on that Panasonic. I don’t think they every knew exactly how to use it. I will give them credit for even having a hi-fi system set up. Dual turnatable, Fisher speakers with a Wards Airline receiver later replaced with a Technics. We gave it a pretty good workout as kids in the mid and late 70s. More than the Ray Coniff singers and Lena Horne did anyway . . . my mom later turned into a Johnny Cash fan and Willie Nelson fan, which freaked us out.

  52. funoka, my grandfather, an Italian-American city guy, also turned to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson in his later years.

  53. mockcarr

    I haven’t heard a good complete version of Without You yet, I like the song, but it seems like it’s too hard for a band to sing, and falls into histrionics when a good singer does it. I really like Pete Ham’s demo version, but he was right in thinking his chorus was meh.

  54. jeangray

    I would argue that “Coconut” was his biggest hit.

  55. jeangray

    Hi fellahs. I’m currently finishing a six month vow of PC celibacy, but have started to cheat w/my iPhone. I just had to chime in Chris Spedding’s defense. He has produced some very tasteful guitar for the likes of Jack Bruce, John Cale, Robert Gordon, etc., etc. Perhaps he & Nilsson just didn’t gel.

  56. “Slide Projector Doc” is a nice description of these type of things. Still photos moving in Ken Burns’ style with interviews from minor players in the story. God, they must be cheap to produce. I saw a Biography channel thing on Led Zep where they didn’t even pay to license the actual Zeppelin tunes!

  57. tonyola

    Nope. “Without You” was #1 on the Billboard charts and “Everybody’s Talkin'” got to #6. “Coconut” only managed to get as high as #8.

  58. tonyola

    My biggest problem with Badfinger’s version is the chorus, especially the “I can’t live” part. The word “live” isn’t held long enough and it leaves a big hole until the next phrase “if living is without you”. Also, they are obviously straining their voices into a high range that Harry could handle with ease.

  59. Good to hear from you, jeangray!

  60. I love that song! Always enjoy hearing it.

  61. cherguevara

    “Harry” is my favorite. Also, “Nilsson sings Newman.” My kids love “The Point,” which is a great record for the car because it has something for me and something for the kiddies. Also, it makes absolutely no sense at all.

  62. tonyola

    I took a digital copy of The Point and edited out all the narration and extraneous stuff. This left around 27 minutes of songs including the bonus material, and they are all a real delight.

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